LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria's foreign ministry summoned a top U.S. diplomat Friday night over an issue of national importance — on Twitter.
At dispute are two messages sent Friday by the U.S. Embassy's Twitter account critical of an unconditional pardon given to a former governor convicted on corruption charges, a man who President Goodluck Jonathan only weeks earlier referred to as "my boss."
While the Twitter fight isn't likely to end the close relationship Nigeria shares with the U.S., one of its top customers for crude oil, it signals the sensitivity the government has over the pardon, which has enraged Nigerians tired of corruption's strangle-grip on the country. It also shows the growing power that social media have in Nigeria, and the rest of the world, to drive public debate.
The diplomatic spat began Friday morning with two short tweets published by the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria's capital, Abuja. The first said the U.S. was "deeply disappointed" over the pardon issued this week to former Bayelsa state Gov. Diepreye Alamieyeseigha. Alamieyeseigha was impeached and later pleaded guilty to corruption charges in Nigeria. Investigators said he used government money to acquire property in Britain and Nigeria worth more than $10 million.
The second tweet from the embassy simply said: "We see this as a setback in the fight against corruption."
While sounding largely benign, the criticism from the U.S. Embassy was uniquely direct. While then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton roundly criticized the country during a visit to Abuja in 2009 over corruption and election fraud, local U.S. diplomats often strike a more conciliatory tone when speaking with the Nigerian government. The U.S. views Nigeria as a crucial ally in Africa, as it produces oil and provides peacekeeping troops for regional conflicts.
On Friday night, the Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement saying it was urgently calling James P. McAnulty, the U.S. deputy chief of mission, for a meeting. The statement called the U.S. remarks "undue interference and meddlesomeness," since the president had followed the provision of the Nigerian constitution granting him the power to issue pardons.
"The ministry finally expressed the hope that the embassy of the United States of America would henceforth desist from making unwarranted comments on Nigeria's internal affairs, which are capable of undermining the friendly relations that exist between them," the statement said.
Deb MacLean, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, declined to comment Friday night about Nigeria's remarks. The foreign affairs ministry singled MacLean out as the one responsible for making the comments on Twitter, though it was unclear who wrote the posts. Given the top-down structure of the U.S. Embassy, it is likely Ambassador Terence McCulley at least signed off on the message.